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How can good teaching change a college education? Everyone has a story about the way that an engaged, challenging, concerned professor made a particular subject more interesting. But new research suggests that good teachers have a significant effect on something else—the choice of a students’ major.

According to an article about the report earlier this week from InsideHigherEd:

Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor….

Overwhelmingly, the authors write, students’ "taste formation" in choice of major is due to faculty members, although the influence can go either way. "Faculty determine students' taste for academic fields by acting as gatekeepers, either by welcoming them into an area of knowledge, encouraging and inspiring them to explore it, or by raising the costs of entry so high so as to effectively prohibit continuing in it," Takacs and Chambliss write. "Faculty can positively or negatively influence student taste for a field -- some compelling teachers can get students engaged in fields that they previously disliked, while other, more uncharismatic faculty can alienate students from entire bodies of knowledge, sometimes permanently."

At many colleges and universities, the faculty who are tasked with teaching introductory courses are often the lowest men and women on the totem pole. Senior faculty often choose to do more research than teaching and when they do teach, they devote themselves to small seminars for upperclassmen. While newly minted professors can no doubt be inspiring, many of them simply don’t have the knowledge or experience necessary to engage a class. Introductory course need not only to provide students with a basic foundation necessary to go on in a field, but ideally they should explain why a subject is important, why students should be excited by it and where it fits into the rest of the curriculum.

Instead, they are often taught by inexperienced graduate students or professors trying to work their way up the tenure ladder.

It leads to a situation worse than just a student choosing a different major. According to the article: 

Many of the students indicated that they made judgments not just on the professor or his or her discipline, but entire branches of disciplines -- with a bad course in any science field, for example, leading students to write off all science. The authors, based on their interviews, talk about the phenomenon of “majoring in a professor.”

If students are going to write off all science based on an intro to chemistry class that is, for instance, taught by a graduate student without a mastery of English, this does not bode well for encouraging students to go into the STEM fields, regardless of how much more secure financially they could be.

1 thought on “Majoring in a professor”

  1. Lenore Ealy says:

    The best professors would ideally teach Freshmen and Graduate Students! Michael Polanyi presents one of the best understandings of the master-student relationship in Science, Faith and Society:

    “a full initiation into the premisses of science can be gained only by the few who possess the gifts for becoming independent scientists, and they usually achieve it only through close personal association with the intimate views and practice of a distinguished master…”

    This apprenticeship, however, also turns for Polanyi on “the recognition of the authority of that which he is going to learn and of those from whom he is going to learn it.”

    But this is no relationship of lordship on the part of the teacher, but is a relationship of submission in conscience on the part of the apprentice.

    “Thus the authority to which the student of science submits tends to eliminate its own functions by establishing direct contact between the student and the reality of nature. As he approaches maturity the student will rely for his beliefs less and less on authority and more and more on his own judgement. His own intuition and conscience will take over responsibility in the measure in which authority is eclipsed.”

    Submission to authority is not the end, then, but is an essential step in the acquisition of knowledge and the receipt of a tradition of scholarship. In our modern culture education suffers the more it is considered a “right” and the less it is recognized as something of a “rite.” Our culture seems to cultivate neither the capacity for conscience nor the capacity for submission.

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